Like so many Alexanders

Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii
Few historical figures have left such a lasting impression on such a variety of cultures as Alexander the Great.
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Few historical figures have left such a lasting impression on such a variety of cultures as Alexander the Great. He exported Hellenic customs across the world, connected eastern and western trade routes, founded more than twenty cities and was unbeaten on the battlefield, but his greatness is most evident through his ubiquitous presence in various literary traditions. His military career and pioneering leadership even warranted a reference in the Holy Scriptures of new religions. He surfaces in the Bible in Daniel 8:5–8 and 21–22. He is also mentioned in the first Book of the Maccabees and crops up in the ancient Persian poem, the Shahnameh. His possible appearance in the Qur’an is perhaps the most intriguing example of his persistent recognition.

In Surah (sermon) 18 of the Qur’an, a character called Dhu al-Qarnayn or He of the Two Horns appears. The prophet Mohammed claims his story was revealed to him when he sent two messengers to the Jews, who had a superior knowledge of the scriptures, to ask them whether Mohammed was the true prophet of God.

The rabbis are said to have replied ‘ask him (Mohammed) about a man who travelled and reached the east and the west of the earth, what was his story. If he tells you about these things, then he is a prophet.’ God divulged this story to Mohammed to allow him to prove his legitimacy to his followers.

It is related in verses 83-101 of Surah 18 and is known as the tale of Dhu al-Qarnayn. The Qur’an says God made Dhu al-Qarnayn strong and ‘gave him the ways and the means to all ends’. After encountering an unspecified tribe on his travels, Dhu al-Qarnayn asks God to divide them into a group of evil and a group of good so that he can punish those that offend nature and reward those who commend God’s creation. Following this exaction of God’s will, Dhu al-Qarnayn journeys on between two mountains where he finds a foreign people ‘that scarce could understand a saying’.

However, in their desperation, this tribe manages to communicate the real nature of their plight, explaining how the forces of Gog and Magog are hellishly afflicting their land. They plead with Dhu al-Qarnayn to erect a barrier between their settlement and the domain of their foe. Dhu al-Qarnayn accepts and begins constructing a fortification for this bedevilled nation. When He of the Two Horns is finished, he notes that the protection is a gift from God and that when God decrees its fall, a grand battle against the evil of the earth will ensue until the very end of time. Exciting stuff.

Whether Alexander is Dhu al-Qarnayn has been disputed by many Islamic scholars. Some are more comfortable ascribing this Qur’anic credit to Cyrus the Great. Others have advanced the candidacy of the Himyarite king, Saʿb Dhu-Marathid and the Yemenite warlord Messiah ben Joseph. But in his lifetime, Alexander was depicted with horns in the vein of the Egyptian iconography of Ammon-Ra. Coinage from a pre-Islamic era identifies the epithet of Dhu al-Qarnayn as Alexander. Most convincingly, Syriac and Ethiopic Pre-Islamic manuscripts of the Alexander Romance have been discovered that closely resemble the story of Surah 18.

Nietzsche said that Alexander was ‘one of the most humane men of ancient times’, but a man who was tempered by a ‘tigerish lust to annihilate’. That characteristic may explain why he features in so many cultural traditions. From Jewish histories to Indian folk tales, from Iron Maiden songs to Qur’anic references, Alexander’s legacy endures. Pericles happened to describe this phenomenon of posterity best, when he said ‘the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.’

Harry Cluff

Harry Cluff is a journalist and speechwriter based in Kent.

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